Sonia Gandhi (born 1946) is the widow, daughter - in - law and granddaughter - in - law of three Indian prime ministers. As such, it is not surprising that she entered politics as well, becoming the leader of India's Congress Party in 1998. An Italian by birth, Sonia Gandhi became a member of India's most illustrious political family in 1968 when she married Rajiv Gandhi, son of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In 2004, Sonia Gandhi shocked the nation when she was elected prime minister but turned down the post fearing the question of her nationality would tear apart the nation the Gandhi family had sacrificed so much for.
Married into Gandhi Family:
Sonia Gandhi was born Sonia Maino on December 9, 1946, in Lusiana (Vicenza), Italy, to Paola and Stefano Maino, a building contractor. Gandhi was raised Roman Catholic alongside her two sisters. In the 1960s, she went to Cambridge, England, to study English. While there, she met Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawarhlal Nehru. Initially, Rajiv Gandhi showed no interest in politics. He was in Cambridge studying mechanical engineering at Trinity College. They married in 1968 and settled down in India. Sonia Gandhi wholeheartedly adopted her husband's homeland. She learned to speak some Hindi and cook Indian food, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1983.
Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi had two children, son Rahul, born around 1971, and daughter Priyanka, born around 1972. Rajiv Gandhi joined the New Delhi flying club, obtained his commercial pilot's license and became a pilot for Indian Airlines. While living in New Delhi during the early part of their marriage, the Gandhis traveled in the upper - class echelon. They wore designer clothes, hosted beef barbecues and enjoyed disco - dancing, which were all activities the Hindu traditionalists condemned.
During this time, Sonia Gandhi developed a close relationship with her mother - in - law, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi became a kind of personal assistant to the prime minister and traveled with her as she conducted the country's business. Sonia Gandhi was not, however, fond of the public life politics brought with it. She was relieved her husband had stayed out of politics, letting his brother, Sanjay, carry on the torch of the Gandhi name. However, in 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash, prompting Rajiv Gandhi to enter politics out of a sense of family duty. Sonia Gandhi opposed the move. "I would rather have my children begging in the streets of Delhi than him becoming a politician," she once remarked, according to Hamish McDonald of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Lived Through Two Family Assassinations:
In the early 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi won his brother's parliament seat. Once her husband entered politics, Sonia Gandhi began wearing traditional saris and stepped up her role as a traditional Indian wife. Her dislike of politics was heightened in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was shot in the garden of her New Delhi residence by her own Sikh security guards. Sonia Gandhi was one of the first people on the scene and she cradled the dying prime minister in her lap as they sped to the hospital.
On the eve of his mother's death, Rajiv Gandhi was elevated to the post of prime minister. Sonia Gandhi became exceedingly obsessed with her husband's and children's safety. She appeared in public wearing oversized dark glasses, continually scanning the crowds for would - be assassins. Rajiv Gandhi served as prime minister until 1989, when his party was defeated following a scandal involving kickbacks deposited into Swiss bank accounts as part of a weapons procurement deal. Rajiv Gandhi swore his family played no role in the dirty deal. A few years later, in 1991, as Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning to win back the prime minister's post, he was killed by a suicide - bomber.
Within days of her husband's death, Sonia Gandhi was asked to take his place as leader of the Congress Party. She refused. Supporters gathered in the streets outside her home, urging her to take the position. She continued to decline the position and lived out the next several years in political seclusion. With the deaths of her mother - in - law, brother - in - law and husband, Sonia Gandhi remained the only member of the Nehru - Gandhi clan who could carry on in politics. The Nehru - Gandhi family had, after all, supplied the country with its prime minister for 37 of its first 47 years.
Entered Political Fray:
In December 1997, Sonia Gandhi announced her intention to campaign on behalf of the Congress Party, hoping to revive its image and establish its position as a favorable alternative to the right - wing Hindu - nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Gandhi family had represented the Congress Party for years - it was the party the family lived and died for and Sonia Gandhi could not stand to see it falling apart. In her first campaign speech, Sonia Gandhi addressed her change of heart. Her words are found in Paul Dettman's book India Changes Course: "In the years since Rajiv Gandhi left us, I had chosen to remain a private person and live a life away from the political arena. My grief and loss have been deeply personal. But a time has come when I feel compelled to put aside my own inclinations and step forward. The tradition of duty before personal considerations has been the deepest conviction of the family to which I belong."
At first, Sonia Gandhi stumbled. Critics raised the issue of her foreign status - could someone born outside of India really speak for its people? She had always been uncomfortable in the public limelight and newspapers had previously dubbed her the "Sphinx," for her icy demeanor and perpetually somber expression. Eventually, Sonia Gandhi came into her own and became the passionate political star of the Congress Party. Her crowd - pulling ability matched that of her husband and mother - in - law - and once she had a crowd gathered, Sonia Gandhi was able to rally them around the party's causes.
By the spring of 1998, Sonia Gandhi was president of the Congress Party. During campaign speeches, she told crowds the Congress Party would restore the ideal of secularism to government. She lured Muslim voters to the party's ranks. The opposition continued to make her foreignness an issue; however, her foreign - born status did not seem to hurt the party. Sonia Gandhi was such an anomaly that people flocked to see the Italian woman wearing an Indian sari who spoke Hindi with a foreign accent. She drew crowds of more than 200,000 people, boosting the morale of the party's members and injecting enthusiasm into their campaigns as well.
Opposition leaders continued to chide Sonia Gandhi for her foreign - born status. According to the New York Times, Times of India writer Mohit Sen wrote that Indians were actually going against tradition by not welcoming Sonia Gandhi into their ranks. "Those who so perversely and perniciously question Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's Indian nationality on the grounds that she was born an Italian are actually assailing Indian tradition. Part of what is rightly hailed as the exceptional and wise tolerance characterizing our national ethos is the openness to those who came to us from outside as friends, with the desire to become part of us."
Undaunted, Sonia Gandhi continued as a voice for the Congress Party. During the 1998 campaign, she traveled 60,000 kilometers and spoke to 138 constituencies in 34 days. In the 1998 election, the Congress Party only gained one more seat in parliament than it had in 1996, but the election was still considered a success because pollsters had predicted the party would lose seats that year. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi won a seat in parliament.
Turned Down Prime Minister's Post:
As the 2004 election approached, Sonia Gandhi was still president of the Congress Party and still its most outgoing speaker. Many assumed that if her party won the election, she would become prime minister, though she never campaigned as a candidate. The campaign turned nasty. Once again, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used Sonia Gandhi's birthplace as a point of contention. Sonia Gandhi had been an Indian citizen for 20 years, yet opposition leaders questioned her Indian loyalty. While campaigning, the BJP said that Sonia Gandhi could not consider herself to be an Indian because pasta was her favorite food and her children spoke fluent Italian.
The heated campaign drew 670 million voters to the polls in India, which is the world's largest democracy. The people spoke, handing the Congress Party a surprise victory over the right - wing BJP. Congress Party supporters expected Sonia Gandhi to become the prime minister. Immediately, the grumblings began. As poor losers, the BJP politicians threatened to walk out of parliament if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister. They threatened to boycott her swearing - in ceremony. They also declared that having a foreign - born woman as prime minister would constitute a threat to national security. Looking back at India's history, it is easy to see why some Indians were so upset at the prospect of a "foreigner" becoming their leader. India had, after all, been ruled by foreigners until 1947 when it gained a hard - fought independence from Britain.
Hundreds of millions of voters had chosen her, however, despite her birth status. For them, Sonia Gandhi's steadfast dedication to her adopted country was apparent, as was her genuine concern for the country's poorest. Soon after the 2004 election, Sonia Gandhi stunned supporters by announcing that her "inner voice" had urged her to turn down the post of prime minister. Instead, she nominated former finance minister Manmohan Singh for the post. It is easy to understand why Gandhi turned down the position - she likely feared being assassinated like her husband and mother - in - law. Also, the controversy surrounding her foreign birth would never have gone away and her party would have been stuck dealing with that instead of dealing with the problems of the country.
Crowds gathered outside Sonia Gandhi's residence urging her to change her mind. According to Turna Ray of the National Review, parliament member Mani Shankar Aiyar told Sonia Gandhi: "You cannot betray the people of India. The inner voice of the people of India says that you have to become the prime minister of India."
Later, opposition leaders charged that Sonia Gandhi was still calling the shots, even though she was not prime minister. Maneka Gandhi, widow of Sanjay Gandhi and a parliament member of the opposition BJP, said she believed Sonia Gandhi outsmarted her opponents when she stepped down. "I think she's the power in front of the throne," Maneka Gandhi told Los Angeles Times writer Paul Watson. "I don't think she makes any bones about the fact that she has avoided the flak that would have gone with the position, but she has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing any of the power of the position."
Others believe Sonia Gandhi is trying to hold the door open for her son, Rahul Gandhi, to become prime minister. As of 2004, he was representing Amethi, India, in parliament - the same seat his father, mother and uncle once held. Though she turned down the post of prime minister, Sonia Gandhi remained president of the Congress Party. As such, it is likely she will groom her son, Rahul Gandhi, to become prime minister, thus continuing the Gandhi family's dynastic dreams.
Dettman, Paul R., India Changes Course: Golden Jubilee to Millennium, Praeger, 2001.
Mehta, Ved, Rajiv Gandhi and Rama's Kingdom, Yale University Press, 1994.
Commonweal, June 18, 2004.
Far Eastern Economic Review, February 16, 1995.
Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2004.
Maclean's, June 3, 1991.
Ms., Fall 2004.
National Review, June 24, 2004.
New York Times, February 6, 1998.
Time, June 3, 1991.